From Katrina to Compassion

by | Apr 2024

THOSE WHO lived along the Gulf Coast braced for impact or fled further inland despite gasoline shortages and lanes of traffic that steadily crept north. As a nation, we held our collective breaths, awaiting updates from weather reporters, friends, and family. On Aug. 29, 2005, the infamous Hurricane Katrina collided with the heart of New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, breaching levees and causing catastrophic flooding and chaos throughout the region. It has since earned the title of the costliest natural disaster in United States history. 

When the Rev. Regina Girten enrolled in the seventh grade, her father had just retired from the military, and the entire family had settled into their permanent home in New Orleans. No longer considered a “military brat,” Girten was thrilled to finally be able to establish roots she wouldn’t have to dig up now that her father would no longer be receiving marching orders every couple of years. 

While she was earning a bachelor’s degree at Belmont University a few years later, Hurricane Katrina struck, and her family experienced substantial damage to their home and much of their belongings, forcing them to rebuild. While chaos erupted in her beloved community in the hurricane’s aftermath, Girten purposed in her heart to help others walk through similar tragedies with the help of what she and her business partner would later call the Volunteer Network. 

Through the years, Girten has served in a variety of areas within ministry, including leading youth and children and working with unhoused individuals. She was the executive director and co-founder of Firefleyes, a nonprofit organization that fosters creative arts and sports in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She earned a master’s degree from Memphis Theological Seminary, and the United Methodist Church appointed her to serve at Providence Church four years ago. She has also served as co-chair for the county’s long-term recovery group, Recover Wilson. She has a husband, Jeff, and is a mother of two. 

In March 2020, just as they’d done before Hurricane Katrina, the nation braced for another storm sweeping in over the horizon. This time, it wasn’t a hurricane but a pandemic that would come with ripple effects that caused many businesses and schools to temporarily shutter doors. When a tornado also struck Tennessee during this time, the Mount Juliet Police Department created an online portal where prospective volunteers could register to help with recovery efforts, which resulted in 4,000 people offering to help. 

In the aftermath of this tornado, Girten joined forces with the director of local good from Cross Point Church in Mt. Juliet, Jamie Tyner. Together, they began seeking ways to help their community in the event of another disaster. They helped mobilize and serve on the long-term recovery group, Recover Wilson, which assisted community members who could not survive on their own in not only the tornado of 2020 but also the subsequent flood of 2021 and the tornado of 2022. Recover Wilson was able to help over 300 residents. 

Through these efforts, Tyner and Girten saw the need for a volunteer management space in Wilson County and created the Volunteer Network, which has since partnered with 44 organizations that have logged an astounding 1,600 hours of volunteer service and currently have 1,000 registered volunteers. It falls under the 501(c)(3) umbrella of United Way of Greater Nashville as an initiative of Hands On Nashville. The coordination efforts of the Volunteer Network also resulted in the creation of the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster that, according to Girten, offers a preparedness structure that is ready when/if another disaster strikes. 

“This community mobilization effort will prop up future long-term recovery groups needed after any future disasters,” said Girten. “Volunteer Network now partners alongside Wilson Emergency Management Agency and our first responders. Communities don’t typically have these structures in place until after they’ve experienced a disaster. The sheer amount of bridges that have been built and relationships that have developed as a result of the tornado in 2020 is probably the most significant event that has happened so far. You never want a disaster to bring people together, but it inevitably does and has.” 

Girten continued, “Rallying around your community after a disaster allows not only the individual to heal and recover, but it allows the community to have ownership of healing collectively as well. It is important to help others during and after a disaster because each person impacted affects the entire community. And because, as we often say, ‘We are better together.’” GN 

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